Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction – How to Tell if Someone Needs Help for a Drug Problem

Medically Reviewed by
Nzinga Harrison, MD
September 27, 2022

Understanding the science behind addiction can be complicated. Some people might think that people become addicted if they don’t have any willpower or good morals. In actuality, addiction is a complex and chronic brain disease that can affect people from all backgrounds. It can happen to anyone at any age.

Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted because drugs have a different effect on everyone. Some people use drugs experimentally on occasion in a social setting. However, if usage becomes more regular, some people lose the ability to control when and how much they are using. Over time, drugs change behavior and how the brain, body, and mind function. This is how drug addiction, medically known as substance use disorder, develops. These changes can be long-lasting and cause stressful problems like missing work, legal issues, physical health problems, and trouble with family and friends.

Legal Drugs vs. Illegal Drugs

People can become addicted to illegal drugs, legal drugs, and prescription medications used in an unhealthy way, such as:

  • Illegal substances

  • Legal substances

    • Alcohol

    • Nicotine, including cigarettes and vaping

Misusing prescription medicines like opioids, or over-the-counter medicines by taking them in a different way than intended, such as:

  • Taking medicine prescribed for someone else

  • Taking a larger dose than prescribed

  • Using the medicine in a different way than directed, such as crushing and snorting or injecting

  • Using the medicine to get high on purpose

The risks and speed of developing an addiction depend on the drug. Some drugs, like opioid painkillers, cause addiction very quickly. Drugs have a strong effect on the brain’s reward system, by filling the brain with a chemical called dopamine which produces the feeling of being high. Over time, the brain gets used to the larger amount of dopamine so it needs larger doses of the drug to get high. Some people might feel like they need the drug to just feel normal. When drugs are used for a long time, they damage the areas of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, memory, and learning.

No matter the type of addiction, if you recognize symptoms, it is important to seek the necessary help.

The signs and symptoms of a drug addiction

Signs of a Drug Problem

It’s not always easy to tell if someone has a substance use disorder, especially because of shame and stigma. Some people try to keep their drug use a secret. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has a problem with drugs, the main indications of addiction include:

  • Having a strong craving to use drugs every day or several times throughout the day

  • Always having drugs with you

  • Buying drugs, even if you can’t afford them

  • Needing more of the same drug to have the same effect

  • Doing things you wouldn’t normally do in order to get drugs, such as stealing or lying

  • Doing risky or dangerous things while on drugs, like driving or having unsafe sex

  • Continuing to take drugs even though they’re causing problems with your loved ones, work, and other commitments

  • Taking more drugs than you want to, and for longer than you thought you would

  • Spending most of your time getting, using, or recovering from drug use

  • Feeling sick when you try to quit

Changes to Usual Behavior

Drugs can also change personalities and behaviors, or make people act in ways that they normally don’t. At first, these behaviors may happen infrequently so it may be hard to notice them. Over time though, they may occur more regularly as drug usage increases.

  • Spending more time alone

  • Changing friends a lot

  • Losing interest in favorite hobbies or usual activities

  • Not taking care of appearances (not showering, brushing teeth, changing clothes)

  • Having mood swings or being more irritable, tired, or sad

  • Sleeping for longer or less, or at different hours than normal

  • Eating more or eating less than usual

  • Missing appointments or forgetting to do things they normally do

Changes to Physical and Mental Health

It may be possible to recognize addiction if someone’s health changes for the worst. Drug addiction is associated with a variety of health issues, including:

  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes

  • Constant or recurring illness

  • Unexplained or frequent injuries

  • Sudden weight changes

  • Poor hygiene or bad skin, hair, teeth, and nails

  • Sweating, body shaking, or vomiting (physical symptoms associated with withdrawal)

  • Speech changes like slurred words, rambling, or fast-talking

Drug addiction is also associated with mental health changes. Pay attention to the development of mental health conditions, or the worsening of existing conditions, including:

  • Sudden mood swings

  • Aggressive or violent behavior

  • Irritable mood

  • Depression

  • Memory loss or problems with recalling information

  • Apathy, or lack of motivation or care

  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm

It’s important to remember that health changes can occur for other medical reasons besides drug addiction. It’s also common for those with drug addiction to downplay the seriousness of any health problems they are experiencing. If you are concerned about someone’s declining health and well-being, and there is no other explanation, there is an increased chance of a hidden addiction.

Who is at risk for developing a drug addiction?

Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted, but there are certain factors that put people at a greater risk for developing an addiction.

  • Family history of addiction: Addiction has a genetic component so if your parent or sibling has a drug or alcohol addiction, you are at increased risk.

  • Trouble at home, with friends, or at work: Being in an unhappy place in life might cause some people to seek out drugs as a way to deal with their problems.

  • Starting drug use at an early age: Drugs affect how young bodies and brains function and grow. This increases the chances of becoming addicted as an adult.

  • Mental health disorders: People with untreated mental health needs, like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher chance of becoming addicted because they may use drugs as a way to cope. Drug use and mental health disorders affect the same parts of the brain.

  • Physical health problems: In the event of an injury or surgery, pain medication, such as OxyContin, Percocet, or Vicodin, may be prescribed for short-term use. However, these opioid drugs can be highly addicting.

  • Peer pressure: Hanging around other people who encourage drug use can be a strong factor in developing an addiction.

  • Type of drug used: Using certain drugs like stimulants, cocaine, or opioid painkillers, can develop an addiction more quickly than other drugs.

Seeking Treatment for Drug Addiction

Depending on your specific goals and needs, there are many types of treatment programs and supportive resources available for drug addiction. Treatment may include:

  • Detox: Under medical supervision, your body can safely adjust to not using drugs.

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Prescription drugs like Naltrexone and Buprenorphine can reduce cravings for drugs.

  • Counseling and therapy: Individual or group therapy sessions, or a combination of both, can help you manage your emotions in a private, judgment-free environment.

  • Support groups: These groups bring together individuals with drug addiction. Your fellow peers act as a support system for each other throughout recovery.

  • Treatment for other medical conditions: Medical services can manage and treat any of the short- and long-term health effects associated with drug addiction.

  • Treatment for mental or behavioral health needs: You can receive prescribed psychiatric medications for mental health needs, such as depression or anxiety, that occur at the same time as drug addiction.

There isn’t an overnight cure for drug addiction, but with treatment, it is possible to get better over time. Treatment builds a solid foundation of physical and mental strength, as well as a system of support to rely on for help.

If you recognize these symptoms, no matter the type of drug addiction, seek help today. Contact us to learn more about starting treatment.

If you are concerned for a loved one who may be showing these symptoms, we are here to help. Download our eBook, “How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Substance Use Disorder,” for information on addiction and how to best help someone experiencing it while still caring for your own mental health.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

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Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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